In Mary Shelley’s classic novel, Victor Frankenstein abandons his creation out of pure and utter horror. In this regard, he ends up taking no responsibility for his actions and ends up not only creating a murderous monster but also ends up killing himself as well. Though life may not be as scary as Mary Shelley makes it out to be, for many heterosexual relationships, paternal abandonment is a real, and scary, issue. Therefore, in this article, I intend to discuss the issue of paternal abandonment and why it is significant we also focus on fatherhood alongside motherhood.
How is Abandonment Fostered?
The two major structural threats to fathers’ presence in children’s lives are divorce and non-marital childbearing. Often, fathers are involuntarily relegated by family courts to the role of “accessory parents,” instead of active caregivers. This view persists among many, even though fathers typically share with mothers at least some of the responsibility for the care of their children.
What are the Consequences?
Researchers Sara McLanahan, Laura Tach, and Daniel Schneider published a paper last year on this exact problem. They reviewed 47 studies that used a variety of methods designed to uncover the effects of father absence. Here’s what they found across a variety of domains:
Although father absence did not seem to have consistent effects on children’s cognitive test scores, which are “more difficult to change than noncognitive skills and behaviors,” there is consistent evidence that father absence lowers children’s educational attainment and decreases the likelihood that they will graduate from high school. Workers without high school diplomas experience very high levels of unemployment and make less money than more educated workers, so failing to finish high school places young people at a major disadvantage in life.
Four of six relevant analyses demonstrate “a negative effect of parental divorce on adult mental health”. 19 of 27 analyses on delinquency and negative “externalizing” behaviors “found a significant positive effect of divorce on problem behavior”. In addition, five of six studies on substance use suggest father absence affects their children’s likelihood of smoking cigarettes and using drugs and alcohol. The authors write that “recent research shows that social-emotional skills play an important role in adult outcomes” such as educational attainment, family formation, and labor market success, so the effect of father absence on mental health and social skills has implications even beyond children’s personal happiness.
McLanahan and her colleagues found few studies on how father absence affects children’s employment and income in adulthood. The handful of analyses they did find are not entirely comparable; however, some of their findings were consistent. Two studies associated divorce with unemployment and in two other studies there were “higher levels of labor force inactivity”. In a fifth study, growing up with stepparents and with a single divorced mother had negative effects on occupational status.
Family Formation and Stability
As with labor force outcomes, the coauthors found few rigorous studies of family formation among those who grew up fatherless. The three relevant studies on how father absence affects children’s chances of marriage came to varying conclusions; however, two analyses on the influence of father absence on early childbearing show a positive association between the two.
Therefore, we should not dismiss fatherhood as secondary in the court system.
Instead, we should acknowledge fatherhood as a significant and equal factor in a child’s life and development.